Rotation.org Writing Team
The Story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz
Bible Background & Lesson Objectives
Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16, NIV)
Family, steadfastness, loyalty, honor, virtue, redemption, seeking protection and providing protection to others, and just treatment of the poor and “foreigners.”
Summary of Meaning
The story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz begins as a story about steadfast love in the midst of tragedy and becomes an exemplary tale about two virtuous people who will become the great-grandparents of King David and ancestors of Jesus. If you ever wondered how David became “a man after God’s own heart,” it started with Ruth and Boaz! Without mentioning God, their story is a subtle reminder of how God's redeeming work continues through redeeming people.
On a personal level, the Book of Ruth is a story about family, loyalty, and protecting those in need—subjects that are as relevant today as ever. Unlike stories of other flawed Bible heroes (Jacob, Moses, and David, for example), the Book of Ruth depicts good people living godly lives without miracles or God's voice telling them what to do.
On a historical level, the Book of Ruth was written to remind the exiles returning from Babylon (and all of us) that "foreigners," "immigrants," and the poor should be treated with respect, and indeed are part of God's family tree. It also functions as an instructive genealogy of King David's "pedigree."
On a theological level, Boaz, Ruth, and Naomi's virtuous actions are a metaphor for God's relationship with Israel and an example to all of us. Eight different times in the Book of Ruth, Boaz is referred to as the Gaw-al' —a title that in Hebrew means "Guardian-Redeemer." Boaz is not only obligated by tradition to be the Guardian of his family, he goes out of his way to do so.
גָּאַל Gaw-al' = "Guardian-Redeemer"
In addition to eight times in Ruth, the title of Gaw-al' is used 18 times in Leviticus and over 40 times in Isaiah to describe the role and work of God—our Guardian, Protector, and Redeemer. Like Boaz, God is our Guardian-Redeemer, the One who watches over us and the One to whom we humbly return seeking protection.
Ruth also acts as a Guardian-Redeemer when she:
- pledges her steadfast love to Naomi, "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay." (Ruth 1:16)
- accompanies Naomi on the difficult journey back to Bethlehem.
- gleans in the fields to provide for Naomi.
- knows that her marriage to Boaz will provide Naomi with security in her old age.
Naomi's acceptance of Ruth and willingness to bring her Moabite daughter-in-law back to Bethlehem is also exemplary.
Connecting the Guardian-Redeemer dots in this story and other places in the Old Testament, we can see the thematic origins of Jesus' message of inclusion, care, protection, and redemption.
Jesus' very last words in Matthew echo Ruth's to Naomi,"Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age." (Mt 28:20)
Learn more about the phrase and role of "Guardian-Redeemer" below.
TAKE NOTE! Many English versions of the Bible translate Gaw-al' rather weakly, using terms like "kinsman" or "relative." Fortunately, the NIV gets it right by using "Guardian-Redeemer," which is one of the reasons we picked the NIV for this lesson. If your translation doesn't use the proper title, make sure you take time to teach its meaning.
Here's a terrific animated and narrated overview of the Book of Ruth for teachers:
This Set's Lesson Objectives:
- Students will be able to tell the Story of Ruth in their own words to the best of their ability.
- Students will be able to recite the memory verse ("Where you go...." Ruth 1:16) to the best of their ability, and understand that it is an example of how we should be steadfast in our relationships.
- Students understand the concept of "Guardian-Redeemer," are able to identify people in their lives who function as such, and consider their role as a protector and redeemer within their own family and community.
- Students will know and believe that God (Jesus) goes with them too!—and is their Guardian-Redeemer.
Historical Setting and Significance:
The story of Ruth and Boaz takes place in the waning days of the era of Judges (circa 1100 B.C.) when Israel is essentially a group of hill country tribes surrounded by other tribes and religions. Ruth and Boaz are presented as exemplary “founding great-grandparents” of the Davidic dynasty.
Traditionally said to have been written by Samuel, scholars believe the story was crafted during or after the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C., perhaps as a reminder to Israel's anti-foreigner impulses that its greatest king had a foreign ancestor, Ruth from Moab. In that way it served as a strong reminder (and rebuke) to both the returning Jews and those who had stayed behind during the Exile that it doesn't matter where you are from or where you have been; what matters to God is who you are and how you treat others.
Behind the story are a number of Levitical laws regarding inheritance and marriage that would have been understood by Ruth's Jewish readers. Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz are portrayed as navigating these requirements with exemplary virtue and kindness. Together, they and the great king they will eventually produce are a counterpoint to other voices in scripture and history that speak with a less redemptive tone toward outsiders and people "not born here."
That most of the story takes place in Bethlehem is a detail not lost on Jews or Christians, because this is the town and people who "are from of old, from ancient times" who will give birth to the Messiah:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me one who will have dominion over Israel,
whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)
Summary of the Story
Ruth the “foreigner” from Moab pledges steadfast loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi amid their loss and uncertain future. Seeking protection, Ruth humbles herself before Boaz, a virtuous kinsman and their family’s Guardian-Redeemer who responds with kindness and protection (marriage). In addition to teaching us about virtue and inclusion, the very last word in the Book of Ruth signals another reason for telling a story about our faith family tree. That word is דָּוִֽד, "David" (Ruth 4:22), whose great-grandparents are none other than the virtuous Ruth and Boaz.
The story is organized using a classic and ancient storytelling format that today we would call a three-act play:
- The Setup, introducing the people and problem. Ruth Chapter 1.
- The Confrontation or "Dramatic Question"—will she or won't she? Chapters 2 and 3.*
- The Resolution, also known as the Climax or happy/tragic ending. Chapter 4.
*Keep in mind that the four chapter divisions of Ruth were added MUCH later. Also keep in mind that shaping a story into a well-known form doesn't mean it's not true.
The story can be read in about 10 minutes. Here’s an overview of what’s in Ruth's four-chapter three-act play.
We meet Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their sons Mahlon and Chilion, who flee Bethlehem because of a famine and move to Moab where there is food and where their sons will marry two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah. Within ten years, Naomi's husband and sons are dead, and she prepares to release her two daughters-in-law back to their Moabite families and return to Bethlehem as an old, self-described “bitter” widow. But one daughter-in-law, Ruth, insists on staying with Naomi, famously saying:
Where you go I will go,
and where you stay I will stay.
Your people will be my people
and your God my God.
(Ruth 1:16, NIV)
Naomi has arrived back in Bethlehem with Ruth -- her foreign daughter-in-law. Ruth sets out to provide for them by gleaning behind the harvesters in a local field. She meets Boaz, an older relative of Naomi's and her dead father-in-law. Impressed by the story of her love and sacrifice for Naomi, Boaz tells his servants to leave behind extra stalks of grain for Ruth to glean and orders his workers not to give her trouble. Naomi praises Boaz' kindness to Ruth and identifies him to Ruth as the family's Guardian-Redeemer.
Naomi instructs Ruth saying, “wash, put on perfume and fresh clothes, and when Boaz has fallen asleep on the threshing floor where he has been working all day go lie at his feet, and when he awakes, he will tell you what to do.” In effect, Ruth is making herself presentable and available for marriage.
When Boaz awakes, he praises Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi and their family, and promises to fulfill his obligation as the family’s Guardian-Redeemer by marrying Ruth.
Boaz convenes the tribal elders at the town gate and settles with another closer member of the family who releases his obligation to marry the widow Ruth by giving his sandal to Boaz (an ancient tradition). Boaz marries Ruth and they have a baby boy named Obed, who will be the father of Jesse, who will be the father of King David. Boaz' exemplary virtue would later become enshrined in the Temple itself when his great-great-grandson Solomon named one of the two Temple pillars guarding the Temple entrance after him.
Insights and Word Studies
The Bible is at its best when it is telling stories, and few stories are as compelling and full of hope as the story of Naomi the destitute Jewish widow, Ruth her widowed Moabite daughter-in-law, and Boaz the virtuous older man from the tribe of Benjamin who agrees to marry Ruth. Their story teaches us that being virtuous and steadfast is its own blessing. And it reminds us that God works through trouble and tragedy, good people, and key moments to fulfill his promises.
All three had known loss. Naomi lost her husband Elimelech and her two sons Mahlon and Chilion. Ruth lost her first husband. And the older Boaz was undoubtedly widowed himself. (Ancient rabbis held that it would have been unthinkable for a tribal leader like Boaz to have been unmarried, as explained in the Midrash.)
Though Ruth is a foreigner from neighboring Moab, there is little in the story itself to suggest that being a foreigner was a problem for Boaz and the people of Bethlehem. Though some modern retellings have the townspeople murmuring or raising their eyebrows at Ruth, the scripture doesn't mention it (perhaps as a way of making "foreign status" a non-issue). Rather, it’s Ruth's status as a poor unattached widow without a protector that's the problem for both her and Naomi, based on the social and economic traditions of their day. Boaz is the first to address this problem when he tells his workers not to bother her.
Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz’ story is also a wonderful example of how the Bible allows different voices to speak within it. Where other parts of the Old Testament vociferously oppose marriage to foreign wives and Ezra will even attempt to force Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives (Ezra 10:10-11), Ruth’s story unabashedly reminds us that King David’s great-grandmother was a foreigner.
Ruth's story also gives voice to women in the Bible and Church whose stories are under-represented (and sometimes mistreated). Ruth's story is the embodiment of "the noble woman" described in the powerful prose of Proverbs 31:10-31. It probably isn't a coincidence that Boaz calls Ruth "noble" in Ruth 3:11, using "hayil" which is the same word that Proverbs 31:10 uses to describe the virtuous woman.
More about the Gaw-al' -- The “Guardian-Redeemer”
Eight times in the story of Ruth, Boaz is referred to as the “Gaw-al'” –which the NIV properly translates as “Guardian-Redeemer.” A Gaw-al' or Guardian-Redeemer was a close, influential relative to whom members of the extended family could turn for help. It could include paying another’s debts or buying their land to keep it within the family. And in some circumstances, it could also include marrying a widow to protect her honor and secure her future. Some translations use less explanatory words such as “next of kin” or “kinsman” which don’t carry the full legal and redeeming sense of the fifty other passages in the Bible where Gaw-al’ is translated as “redeemer.” The only question is whether or not Boaz will fulfill his responsibilities as the Gaw-al', which of course he does.
The role of Gaw-al’ is patterned after God’s own responsibilities as head of our family. God is the one we can turn to, the one who forgives or pays our debts, the one who protects us. The prophet Isaiah uses Gaw-al’ as a title for God 25 times. Wherever you see the word “Redeemer” in Isaiah, it’s most likely the Hebrew word Gaw-al’. “Thus saith the LORD, thy Redeemer (the Gaw-al’), the Holy One of Israel” (Is 48:17), and “The Redeemer (The Gaw-al’) shall come to Israel” (Isaiah 59:20).
Of course, if the role of Guardian-Redeemer is good enough for God and Boaz, then it’s meant to be an example to us too!
- How do each of us “protect” our family members? Our friends? The dispossessed and destitute?
- What daily actions and words can remind people that you are someone they can look to for safety, protection, and help?
(Note: Gaw-al' is sometimes spelled "Go-el" and pronounced "Ga-el")
"Where you go, I will go"
The heart of the story is found in Ruth's famous pledge to her mother-in-law Naomi found in Ruth 1:16 -- "Where you go, I will go." Throughout the Book of Ruth, Ruth also acted like a Guardian toward Naomi, and the sentiment of her words in 1:16 are the same attitude a Guardian would have -- you are not alone, I am with you.
Ruth's Hebrew is very brief, memorable, and rather fun to say. Here’s a shortened form of the verse phonetically spelled out:
Uba asher talini, alin
(Where you lodge, I will lodge)
(Your people (will be) my people)
(Your God, will be my God)
The chapter about "gleaning" (Ruth 2)
Each chapter of the story offers some famous verses and memorable scenes. Chapter 1 has the pledge: "where you go I will go." Chapter 2 features the wonderful scene of Ruth gleaning behind the harvesters in Boaz' field. Chapter 3 finds Ruth lying at Boaz' feet. Chapter 4 has the "sandal pledge" and marriage.
Behind the gleaning scene in chapter 2 is the Law of Moses in Leviticus 19 which requires harvesters to leave something behind for "the poor and foreigner." But Boaz the Gaw-al' goes the extra mile when he is told that Ruth is the Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi his long-lost kinswoman. Hearing their story, Boaz invites Ruth to eat at his table (which is faintly reminiscent of the parable of the uninvited guest in Luke 7:36-50), orders his workers not to harass Ruth, and tells them to give her extra grain. When Naomi hears of it, she exclaims, “The Lord bless him! ...He has not stopped showing his kindness. And then Naomi identifies Boaz to Ruth as one of their family's Guardian-Redeemers. (Ruth 2:20)
On its own, the gleaning scene seems like a wonderful story about sharing your food with others, and indeed, many Sunday School lessons simply teach it as such. But there's a much bigger picture here. When you add them all together -- the Levitical imperative to "leave extra" for others, Boaz' invitation to Ruth to sit at his table, his promise of protection, and his going beyond the Levitical requirement by giving her more than leftovers, the chapter becomes a template for what a Gaw-al' is and does -- and by example, how we should act toward others in need. In this way, "letting people glean the leftovers" is only the beginning of how we are to guard and redeem one another. (Like Boaz and Jesus, we are to invite them to our table and share our abundance.)
Hidden away in the gleaning scene is a surprise reference to the imagery behind the word Gaw-al' and foreshadowing of the threshing floor scene that's coming in chapter 3. In Ruth 2:12, Boaz says, "May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” This reference to wings and refuge are the Gaw-al'/Redeemer's wings and promise of protection found in Psalm 91. See more about that below!
Ruth 3: 5-11 ~ The part about Ruth “lying at Boaz’ feet”
A lot has been written about a possible euphemism for sex implied by the scene in chapter 3 when Ruth lays at the feet of the sleeping Boaz. This scheme created by Naomi suggests to some that she wanted to create a situation that would force Boaz to marry Ruth, and Ruth went along with it. But that is not what happened. Ruth does physically lay at Boaz’ feet, but the threshing floor was a public space, not a romantic getaway. When Boaz wakes up and finds her there, she asks to be “covered by his robe” which harkens back to Boaz' "wings and refuge" blessing in Ruth 2:12 and the "wings and refuge" imagery of the Redeemer in Psalm 91. ( See the word study below about the meaning of "cover" and its imagery.)
When Boaz sees Ruth humbling herself and asking to be protected, he once again praises Ruth for her “noble character.” He undoubtedly understands that her bold move is a proposal for marriage and not a one-night stand.
Frankly, it would have been unthinkable for Boaz to have relations with Ruth at the very public threshing floor—especially because, as he notes, there is another kinsman with a claim to her. Boaz had too much to lose. So why did Boaz invite Ruth to stay until the morning? Probably to keep an unattached woman from having to risk being discovered outside in the middle of the night. Like the revelation of Ruth’s virtuous character when she commits to Naomi, the threshing floor scene reveals the character of Ruth AND Boaz.
For more about this threshing floor scene, read Rabbi Sabato’s article.
Other Interesting Hebrew Words and Images Behind Chapter 3's Threshing Floor Scene
Shiphchah and A’mah
When Ruth first met Boaz in the fields, she identified herself using the Hebrew word shiphchah which means “lower than the lowest servant” (Ruth 2:13). But in chapter 3 on the threshing floor at the feet of Boaz, Ruth describes herself as an a'mah, a term used for a woman eligible to be a wife or concubine. In effect, she’s asking Boaz to marry her.
Kaw-nawf -- "covering of your garment" = “wings”
In chapter 3 when Ruth asks Boaz on the threshing floor to “Spread the corner of your garment over me” (Ruth 3:9), she is not asking Boaz to cuddle with her. Instead, in the Hebrew she literally asks Boaz to "spread his (protective) wings over me." The word "cover" used by Ruth is kaw-nawf' in Hebrew. And kaw-nawf is translated 74 other times in the Bible as “wings” --a metaphor for protection most often ascribed to God. In fact, Ruth is echoing Boaz's praise that he gave to Ruth in Ruth 2:12 when he says, “May you be richly rewarded by the God of Israel under whose wings you have to come to take refuge.”
Hebrew readers would have heard this "wings" connection and undoubtedly recalled the words of Psalm 91 where the protective wings of the Redeemer are beautifully described:
Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
He alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
he is my God, and I trust him.
He will cover you with his feathers.
He will shelter you with his wings.
His faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Psalm 91 (v 1, 2, 4 NLT)
God doesn't appear or speak in the Book of Ruth.
There are no miracles or visions. But God is all over their story, showing us how respect and love for one another make us part of God's redeeming work.
The Bethlehem, David, Jesus Connection
Bethlehem means "House of Bread" and was home to several of the Bible's greatest heroes, including Ruth and Boaz, David, and Jesus the Messiah himself! "House" is also a Hebrew metaphor for "family" or "lineage." Ruth and Boaz' family were a "house of bread" to the nation that eventually produced the very "Bread of Life" himself. It is a town and family that continues to nourish us.
Of course there is more to say. And that is one of the miracles in the story of Ruth; it is the gift that keeps on giving.
Written by Rev. Neil MacQueen with the Rotation.org Writing Team
Copyright Rotation.org Inc.
Original Ruth artwork courtesy of John August Swanson Studios;
the set "logo" is a version of the original taken from our printable storybook.